Activists remain 'captive' on Japanese whaling ship

The fate of two environmental activists held by the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Antarctic hung in the balance for a second day yesterday despite a reported deal between the Australian and Japanese governments to secure their release.

Giles Lane, a Briton from Brighton, East Sussex, and Benjamin Potts, an Australian, were captured by crew members of the Yushin Maru No 2 on Tuesday after they boarded the Japanese ship to deliver a letter of protest. They have been held on the ship since then. The men are volunteers with the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, which is trying to disrupt the hunt.

Takahide Naruko, a Japanese Fisheries Agency official, told reporters yesterday that the Japanese fleet had halted its whale hunt and was trying to arrange the turnover of the two activists. But crew members on the Sea Shepherd's ship the Steve Irwin said the Yushin Maru No 2 had gained speed and was still trying to lose them.

Speaking by satellite phone, the captain, Paul Watson, said: "The Yushin Maru No 2 is now about 40 nautical miles to the south of us but as for a handover we haven't heard a word from either the Japanese or Australian governments and have still had no radio contact from the Japanese fleet."

Captain Watson said his organisation was sent a letter yesterday from the Institute of Cetacean Research, the wing of the Japanese government that carries out the whale hunt, saying the men would be released only if Sea Shepherd promised "no violent action" against the Japanese fleet, to stop filming and photographing the hunt and that the Steve Irwin remain at least 10 nautical miles away from the Yushin Maru No 2 during any handover.

Sea Shepherd said the actions were "terrorism". "It's the kind of thing you might expect from al-Qa'ida," said Captain Watson. He added that Sea Shephered had the whaling fleet "on the run" and would consider a rescue mission.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, accused Sea Shepherd of stalling to raise publicity. A foreign ministry official, Tomohiko Taniguchi, said the Japanese fleet was trying to return the activists but that the Steve Irwin was not allowing it to. "These people aren't hostages – they're unwanted guests," he said. "We want them off our ship immediately, but they're not giving us the chance."

The Australian Foreign minister, Stephen Smith, said the situation was dangerous and called for caution.